This is the first installment in the The Dictators series by The Irrawaddy that delves into the lives and careers of Burma’s two most infamous military chiefs and the cohorts that surrounded them.
For most of the past half-century, Burma has been ruled by the successive iron fists of two ruthless men—Ne Win and Than Shwe. Ne Win was a product of the first struggle for independence and the era of communist and socialist ideology. Than Shwe was a product of Ne Win’s authoritarian regime and failed socialist economic policies.
Suu Kyi and her comrades who have fought to bring democracy and human rights to Burma are all, or course, extremely knowledgeable regarding the background and actions of these two men who personally shaped the current military regime and its psychological mindset. Every calculation and decision the opposition makes must have at its foundation an awareness of this history, because it reveals Than Shwe and his fellow generals’ current propensities. And every Burma watcher, whether full-blown participant or armchair analyst, should also be familiar with the two dictators that have turned Burma into the country that it is—and is not—today.
Ne Win, whose given name was “Shu Maung,” was born in 1911 in the Prome District of Pegu Division, about 200 miles north of Rangoon, where he was raised in a middle class family and attended the National High School. As a youth, he had aspirations of becoming a physician, but his medical dreams were dashed when he didn’t perform well at University College in Rangoon. After dropping out of college, Ne Win remained in Rangoon and hung out with a group of student friends who spent time every day discussing how to liberate Burma from the British.
Along with U Nu, the president of the Rangoon University student union, and Aung San, the student union secretary, Ne Win became a member of the nationalist organization Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association).
In 1941, Aung San and Ne Win were among the 30 young men chosen to receive military training in Japan who became known as the “Thirty Comrades” and formed the Burma Independence Army (BIA). Each if the Thirty Comrades chose a nom de guerre before returning to Burma. Aung San chose “Bo Tay Za,” and Shu Maung chose the nom de guerre “Bo Ne Win,” meaning “The Radiant Sun.”
Aung San, the undisputed leader of the independence movement, was assassinated by a rival in 1947, and when Burma regained its independence in 1948 U Nu was appointed prime minister. In March of that year, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) went underground and resorted to armed struggle in hopes of building a “Red Era” in Burma.
The first battle between government forces and the CPB broke out in Pegu, south of Rangoon, and the fighting soon spread to the communist stronghold in central Burma. At nearly the same time, ethnic Karen rebels began their armed effort to gain autonomy.
The fledgling Burmese army was in disarray and unable to maintain law and order—there were many desertions and the communist and ethnic insurgents outnumbered the government troops. When Gen Ne Win took over as army chief of staff in February 1949, he had barely 2,000 soldiers and Burma’s many young patriots thought the country was heading in a dangerous direction.
To make matters worse, new trouble was brewing in Burma’s far north. Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist Kuomingtang (KMT) troops from southern China had crossed the border into eastern Shan State following their defeat at the hands of the Chinese communists. These well-armed KMT troops, backed by the CIA, rose from a mere 200 in 1949 to 12,000 in 1952.
They set up bases along the border with Burma as far as Kengtung and Tachilek, and also built an air base in Mong Hsat where they received supplies and equipment transported by unidentified planes. Soon the KMT controlled the whole region east of the Salween River and fierce battles broke out between the ill-equipped Burmese forces and the Chinese intruders. Burma’s early military campaigns against the KMT, including “Operation Naga Naing” and “Operation Frost,” failed as the KMT’s superior firepower easily defeated the Burmese.
Despite its initial lack of manpower and resources, Ne Win had an ambitious plan to lead the armed forces. To begin with, he and his senior officers removed many of their colleagues, including senior Karen army officers, British sympathizers and officers not sufficiently loyal to the top general. Many young officers from Ne Win’s 4th Burma Rifles then took up the top posts in the army.
In 1951, the 40-year-old Ne Win held a meeting with his commanding officers at the War Office in Rangoon and asked them to transform the army into a professional fighting force that was properly trained and equipped to fight against the external KMT aggressor, the CPB and the ethnic insurgents.
Ne Win’s loyal officers initiated military reform as requested and turned the Burmese military into a formidable army. The reform plan included recruitment and training to expand the military, establishment of effective intelligence services, setting up defense institutions, drawing up military doctrines and arms procurement.
Ne Win and his senior officers also agreed at the time to set up an army psychological warfare department, with the aim of winning the hearts and minds of the population, insurgents and communist sympathizers. Officially founded in 1952, the Psychological Warfare Department was led by Lt-Col Ba Than.
The size of the Psychological Warfare Department steadily grew and the department took on many projects, including the establishment of the Defense Services Historical Research Institute and the sponsorship of many culture festivals, radio shows and leaflet distributions countrywide. It also launched a magazine, Myawaddy, to counter anti-government publications—Myawaddy has survived until present day and under the current regime has gone on to launch its own television programs as well.
Ne Win recruited former communists Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing to be part of the Psychological Warfare Department. Saw Oo was once a staunch follower of communist leader Thakin Than Tun, who led the “White Flag” faction of the CPB. In the early 1950s, he took up arms against the government but later surrendered.
Chit Hlaing believed in both Buddhist philosophy and Marxism, and was a faithful follower of Thakin Soe, who was the leader of the “Red Flag” faction of the CPB. He studied Marxist philosophy during the Japanese occupation and in the early 1950s traveled extensively in Europe, splitting his time between Paris and Moscow. Saw Oo and Chit Hlaing remained civilians, but Saw Oo’s position was equivalent to a lieutenant colonel in the army and Chit Hlaing’s position was equivalent to the rank of major.
In January 1952, Captain Ba Thaung, who led the mobile psychological warfare team, launched “Operation Liberator” in Kyaukse, where communist sympathizers and rebels roamed the surrounding area. During Ba Thaung’s two-month stay in the Kyaukse region, his team distributed thousands of propaganda leaflets and cartoons depicting the threat of widespread civil war and destabilization of the country. Official government records state that from 1952 to 1953, as many as 1,150,000 leaflets were distributed by the mobile psychological warfare team throughout Burma.
At the time Ba Thaung was in Kyaukse conducting Operation Liberator, a 20-year-old man who had matriculated from Kyaukse high school, and was now working as a postal clerk in nearby Meikhtila, enrolled in the Officers’ Training School (OTS) Intake 9. His colleagues recalled that this new recruit, the youngest of the OTS cadets in his class, would often be seen chewing betel nut, was rather dull and quiet and definitely not an outstanding cadet. His name was Than Shwe.